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Coherence in written discourse

The relation between cohesion (and cohesive means such as text organizers) and coherence (and coherence relations) is explained by Halliday and Hasan (1989: 94), who state that “variation in coherence is the function of variation in the cohesive harmony of a text”. Although both cohesion and coherence are generally considered important notions in text and discourse analysis (Halliday and Hasan 1976, 1989, Widdowson 1979, de Beaugrande and Dressler 1981, Brown and Yule 1983, Stubbs 1983, Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999, Mey 2001), coherence is not yet understood uniformly by all linguists. Moreover, in recent years there has been a considerable shift in how coherence is understood, namely from a static text-based descriptive approach, according to which coherence is viewed as a constitutive property of a text and the product of textual connectivity and cohesion, to a more dynamic conceptualization of coherence, according to which “coherence is not a text-inherent property” (Bublitz 1988: 32) but a property of discourse that can only be derived from the text by a discourse participant in the process of interaction with the text and other participants under given contextual conditions. Readers activate the text “by creating their own discourse from it” and “interpret it only when they relate it to the context of their own reality outside language” (Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999: 209).

Accordingly, it should be stressed that coherence is independent of cohesion: a text, either written or spoken, can be considered coherent without cohesive means while a text can comprise cohesive means without being understood as coherent. As Seidlhofer and Widdowson (1999) put it, one can “derive a coherent discourse from a text with no cohesion in it at all”; conversely, the use of cohesive means which contribute to “textual cohesion provides no guarantee of discourse coherence” (Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999: 207). A similar view has been formulated by Bublitz, who maintains that “cohesion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for coherence” (Bublitz 1988: 32). Coherence can be enhanced but at the same time it is independent of cohesion (Tanskanen 2006, Dontcheva-Navratilova 2007, Povolna 2007). Consequently, in this chapter coherence is regarded, in accordance with Bublitz (1988, 1999), as a potentially variable, context-dependent, hearer/reader-oriented, comprehension-based and interpretative notion.

The process of creating a coherent text-viewed here as visible evidence of a “purposeful interaction between one or more writers and one or more readers in which the writer(s) control the interaction and produce most of (characteristically all) language” (Hoey 2001: 11)-necessarily involves the use of certain signals indicating relationships between parts of the text. The recognition of coherence relations by readers enables them to assign coherence to a text, since texts are not coherent in themselves but are understood as coherent in an actual context and, furthermore, it is not texts that cohere but rather people that cohere when interpreting and ascribing their understanding to texts. Discourse participants may derive slightly different interpretations from the same text and thus perceive different degrees of discourse coherence. It can even be stated that for one and the same text there exist an author’s, a reader’s and an analyst’s coherence, which may or may not be identical. In addition, the different planes of discourse, i.e. ideational, interpersonal and textual (Halliday and Hasan 1989), may contribute to overall discourse coherence in varying degrees, “according to context, genre and the purpose of discourse” (Dontcheva-Navratilova 2009: 100). Thus in a highly interactive and dialogic type of discourse such as face-to-face conversation, for which overt negotiation of meaning is typical, coherence is negotiated on the spot (Povolna 2010) and the interpersonal plane of discourse receives greater prominence, while in a less interactive and rather monologic type of discourse such as a written academic text, where no overt negotiation of meaning is possible, the textual plane of discourse becomes more significant; therefore in less interactive types of discourse coherence needs to be enhanced by certain guiding signals such as text organizers. During the production of monologic types of discourse, collaboration is not so clearly visible as in dialogic types, since the producers (e.g. writers) can only attempt to “match their own representation of the message with that of the (implied) [readers], trying to ensure that they will be able to interpret the message” (Tanskanen 2006: 25).

Cohesive means including guiding signals such as the DMs selected for the analysis undoubtedly contribute to the perception of a text as being coherent, although this is conditional on their appropriate use by the writer and corresponding interpretation by the reader(s). It follows that coherence and the quality of being coherent are of great importance for the establishing of complex semantic relations such as those of cause and contrast (Kortmann 1991), notably in academic written discourse because in this type of discourse it is crucial to present and explain the author’s standpoints and arguments to an academic community in a straightforward and comprehensible manner.

As stated above, in written discourse, unlike in spoken discourse (Povolna 2007, 2010), coherence cannot be negotiated explicitly on the spot, because the context is “split” (Fowler 1986), i.e. “there is no reciprocal management of the discourse, readers are co-opted without their overt co-operation” (Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999: 209), and there is no overt ongoing process of negotiation of meaning between discourse participants. Consequently, the writer of an academic text (e.g. the author of an RA or of a Master’s thesis) has “to anticipate the ideas, values and expectations of the reader and to use explicit signals (e.g. cohesive ties, patterns of information processing) to guide the reader towards an intended interpretation of the text” (Dontcheva-Navratilova 2007: 128), which, under ideal circumstances, approximates as much as possible to the author’s communicative intentions in a given text. The writer, aware of his/her prospective reader(s), can use intentionally certain conventional signals such as DMs in order to make his/her communicative goals clear for the reader(s). In the processes of encoding and decoding both the writer and the reader(s) rely on the entire situational context, which also includes a background encyclopaedic knowledge shared by members of a particular discourse community (Missikova 2005) and their prior experience of processing similar types of discourse.

DMs facilitate the hearer’s coherent interpretation and understanding of what is being conveyed by reflecting the “underlying connections between propositions” (Schiffrin 1987: 61), and as overt guiding signals they help disambiguate the message and foster an interpretation which is in conformity with the communicative intentions of the discourse participants. Hence, the study of DMs and in particular the way they contribute to the expressing of coherence relations, i.e. relations “that hold together different parts of the discourse” (Taboada 2006: 567), can be understood as “part of the more general analysis of discourse coherence- how speakers and hearers jointly integrate forms, meaning, and actions to make overall sense out of what is said” (Schiffrin 1987: 49).

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